13 August 2009

The Navigator (1924)

d. Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton / USA / 60 mins.

Buster Keaton, much like silent comedy's mega-star Charles Chaplin, liked to improvise, and perhaps his most expensive improvisation was The Navigator, a film that had all of its pieces before it knew what to do with them. Keaton's art director, had informed him that a soon-to-be dismantled ocean liner had become available, and Keaton convinced producer Joseph M. Schenck to invest $20,000 into the ship to secure it for a film. Schenck did (although a bit begrudgingly, it's been reported). So after an enormous expenditure and with an entire ocean steam-liner at his disposal, Keaton sat down with his chief gagman, Clyde Bruckman, and finally asked the big question: What are we going to do with it?

The result turned out to be The Navigator, an artistic and cinematic success that went on to be the comedian's most profitable film at the time. The story he and his crew created does not stray too far from typical Keatonian narratives; he plays a well-to-do and pampered rich man named Rollo Treadway who is struck with the urge to be married one day, but the girl (Kathryn McGuire) for whom he pines, named Betsy O'Brien, rejects his proposal. Through a series of mishaps he and she both end up on the empty ship, which is sent out to sea and leaves both the pampered characters to fend for themselves — make their own food (a decision to use six coffee beans to make a gallon proves disastrous) and try to find safety (they scare off a ship that could have helped them when they send up the quarantine flag for attention because it's the brightest flag).

Social status and technology then recur as key sources of Keaton comedy, and both leads carry their weight equally and seem tortured equally by the uncaring mechanics of the ship. Mechanics aside, they're both haunted by what they assume are ghosts on board the ship, including a brilliant sequence where a photograph of a frightening man is tossed out by McGuire and lands on a hook above a porthole, swinging back and forth while Keaton is trying to sleep, as if a face keeps looking in on him. (I'll also give a shout-out to a particularly funny, if Chaplinesque, struggle with a deck chair and a moment where Keaton tries to shuffle a soggy deck of chairs.) Although McGuire appeared in only two of Keaton's films — this and Sherlock Jr. — she brings to the screen a comic poise that you rarely see silent comediennes exhibit. Rollo may have proposed to Betsy in the beginning of the film, and slowly builds up a camaraderie with her as they spent time abroad the ocean liner, but it would almost be incorrect to label her a romantic interest. She lacks the chance to exhibit the physical humor Keaton could conjure out of seemingly nothing (she may or may not have had any), but she undoubtedly serves much more as a comic partner in The Navigator.

Donald Crisp, who made regular appearances in D.W. Griffith's films and served as an uncredited assistant director on The Birth of a Nation, was brought in by Keaton to direct the "straight" scenes of The Navigator. The decision turned out to be a mistake as far as Keaton was concerned when the rather humorless Crisp began meddling in the film. Consequentially, Keaton re-shot everything and is generally regarded as the sole director of the film although Crisp's name remains on the credits.

Even though the film is completely Keaton's, and is a success by any measure, I'm not sure the social satire and the man-versus-machine humor is quite as effective here than in other Keaton features. Certainly it cannot be forgotten for an absolutely bravura sequence that appears toward the end. When the ship stalls out near an island of cannibals that pose a clear and obvious threat to the two socialites, Keaton must don a diving suit and go underwater to fix the ship's broken propeller. It's among the earliest underwear scenes in cinema, filmed at Lake Tahoe because the studio tanks were too small for a life-size propeller. Keaton finds nothing lacking in terms of underwater humor: he washes his hands although he's at the bottom of the sea, and he uses the local fauna to his advantage (a lobster's claws help cut wires and one swordfish comes in handle to fence with another swordfish).

Nearly all of Keaton's films made and released between 1920 and 1929 possess the miraculous quality of blending entertainment, humor, and cinematic skill, but The Navigator has its fair share of ardent defenders; Walter Kerr, in his seminal book The Silent Clowns, calls it "one of Keaton's two perfect films" (the other being The General). Without a doubt I think the film is very good, although it falls short of of masterpiece status. It's always struck me as Buster Keaton's most mechanical film, and not just because one of the "stars" is an retired ocean liner. As I've written before, one of Keaton's surest strengths as a director is delivering a tactile atmosphere through the mise-en-scène; you can almost hear the groans of the hull and smell the cold, wet metal. But the joy of a Keaton film is the journey to a faraway and comic place while being able to feel close to Keaton on screen. He's distant in The Navigator, and though the film as an entire production is marked with distinguishing Keaton characteristics, his lead performance isn't. It's a small gripe for an otherwise splendid film.


Sam Juliano,  13 August, 2009  

All due respect to your most valued and informed position T.S., but I must agree with Kerr. Thi sis a "perfect" film, actually one of three by Keaton (the others of course are THE GENERAL and SHERLOCK JR.) I respect the 'distancing' and 'mechanical disclaimers in an otherwise highly favorable appraisal, but IU can't say I share them.

Another magnificent essay in this seminal series.

T.S. 14 August, 2009  

No feathers ruffled here, I can assure you. I know many hold the film in slightly higher regard than I do, although to be fair, it does earn a 4.5-star rating in my book, which is still pretty damn good. It's a great film regardless. No doubt it's among the essentials of cinema, even if it's not (I must insist) "perfect."

This brings up something important for me, however. It is a film like The Navigator that has prompted me to begin assembling a "personal canon" list that will appear soon on the right-hand side of my blog. My five-star club is a bit difficult to get into, and it was designed as such so that five stars could mean and be worth all five. But I'd still count 4.5-star films as pure essentials that should be treasured by all as well. So this "personal canon" project will encompass my five-star/4.5-star/selected 4-star films and give real credit to my favorite films.

Thanks for stopping by, as always!

R. D. Finch 14 August, 2009  

T.S., I have to agree with your assessment of "The Navigator." It has its fair amount of inventiveness and originality, but I think other of Keaton's better known films surpass it in overall quality. It's a subdued film. Although it has many clever gags, it doesn't have any of those extended jaw-dropping, knockout sequences that really stick with you afterward. The character Keaton plays doesn't seem ideally suited to his image either. It's more like the bratty, spoiled, immature young men Harold Lloyd sometimes played. Interestingly, in the 1972 Sight and Sound poll of directors and critics for the best films ever, this was picked as #1 by Penelope Gilliatt, who I believe at the time shared movie critic duties with Pauline Kael at the New Yorker. For the record, I gave it 3 stars out of 4.

John 14 August, 2009  

T.S. I have not seen this film in many years and my recollection of it is that it just falls short of his greatest films, which for me are Sherlock Jr. and The General. In terms of greatness, I would say Our Hospitality, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Navigator follow closely. For me, of these last three it is splitting hairs saying which is a better film. They are all master works each containing enough artistry to rightfully classify them as brilliant. These five are, again for me, Keaton’s greatest feature films. All are treasures to watch repeatedly. Your series here makes me want to go out and buy the Kino box set which I have been neglecting to purchase for so long and watch these classics.

T.S. 15 August, 2009  

Thanks, R.D. and John, for your great comments. It's amazing how similar people are when it comes to Keaton's works — which I think speaks highly of his talent as a filmmaker. Truth be told, I'm not sure he ever made a solid dud during the silent era, a feat that Chaplin also managed to pull off (although A Woman of Paris, a very un-Chaplinesque feature, doesn't work). It's tough when it comes to something like The Navigator because I don't find it to be a masterpiece, but I do find it to be a great film. The difference feels negligent in the abstract, but the feeling is there. It's no wonder Roger Ebert inducted "The Films of Buster Keaton" into his great movies collection after The General. The director simply had a lot of great films with only a few degrees between each one.

P.S. I'm with you, John. I wish I could pick up that Kino set, but unfortunately it's not in the budget. Amazingly, I don't own any Keaton (public domain has made most of his work available online, though the quality is inferior); I'm definitely putting Sherlock Jr. on my holiday shopping list, though!

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